Russia says stunned by Polish plaque row

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Russia stoked Sunday the flames of a new diplomatic flare-up with Poland by expressing "bewilderment" at Polish anger over its decision to replace a plaque marking the death of the country's president.

The original version of the commemorative sign noted that Lech Kaczynski and 95 other crash victims had been travelling to the Russian town of Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary of the murder of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet secret police.

The late leader's plane missed the runway in heavy fog in the western Russian city of Smolensk and exploded on impact on April 10, 2010.

About 40 families of those killed visited the site of the air disaster on Saturday to mark its first anniversary and noticed that the large granite stone near the runway now bore a completely different sign.

The new shorter version is written in both Polish and Russian and makes no mention of Katyn -- a tragedy that was covered up until the late Soviet era by Moscow and which remains a source of friction between the two countries.

A Russian foreign ministry official angrily dismissed the Polish complaints.

"The Russian foreign ministry expects Polish officials to know that Russian is the state language of the Russian Federation," the unnamed Russian official told local news agencies.

He added that the Russian side had informed Poland in advance that the plaque would be replaced with one in Russian and Polish.

"In this connection, the comments of the official representative of the Polish foreign ministry cause bewilderment," he said.

Smolensk Governor Sergei Antufyev separately told reporters that the airport "is not the place where we mourn the Polish tragedy" at Katyn.

Saturday's discovery of the switch created a furore in Warsaw just as the two sides sought to forge closer ties through their shared grief.

The Polish foreign ministry summoned Moscow's ambassador to Warsaw to express its dismay.

"This was a very bad decision which has spoiled not only the current commemorations but also bilateral relations," Polish foreign ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said.

He suggested that President Bronislaw Komorowski might not lay a wreath at the new plaque when he visits the site on Monday and hundreds of nationalists demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw.

Komorowski is due to apear in Smolensk together with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

They are also expected to travel together to Katyn and a Polish foreign ministry official told Interfax that the visit still appeared to be on.

The row was entirely ignored by Russia's state-controlled television stations but received broad play on Moscow's main independent radio station and was roundly condemned by the Memorial human rights group.

"If Russia really did have problems with the plaque's contents, it should have resolved them with the Polish authorities," the organisation's Polish programmes director Alexander Guryanov told Moscow Echo radio.

"It should not have been done so suddenly and unexpectedly," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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